Esteemed physicist Richard Feynman GS ’42 once said, "Everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jiggling and wiggling of atoms.” Now, the University will be doing just that through the establishment of a new collaborative effort. 

Understanding life means understanding biological functions with unifying physical principles. The Center for the Physics of Biological Function is a collaborative effort between Princeton and the City University of New York that aims to accomplish that.

A $13-million grant from the National Science Foundation was awarded for setting up CPBF, according to Joshua Shaevitz, co-director of the program and University professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. This is one of 11 Physical Frontiers Centers funded by the Physics Division of the National Science Foundation Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

The  program website says that the CPBF has faculty working on a broad range of questions that all ultimately hope to understand life — behavior, from embryonic development to social interactions, the statistical mechanics of group interactions in cells and organisms, physical limits to information flow, and the dynamics of adaptation, learning, and evolution.

Experimental and theoretical faculty in the CPBF work on a variety of organisms including bacteria, worms, fruit flies, and rodents, Shaevitz said. He added that this wide interest in cellular to organismal level biology makes the CPBF different from the two other national biophysics centers — a theoretical one at Rice University and a molecular one at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“Science moves forward when people talk to each other,” said Shaevitz. Although the scientists in the CPBF would continue to work on their own research, Shaevitz explained that the Center would encourage more collaboration. 

While there is no physical building to house the CPBF, collaboration between scientists at both the University and CUNY is being encouraged through weekly seminars at Princeton and monthly seminars in Manhattan, Shaevitz explained. 

“They prepared a stack of train tickets so it’s easier for us to get to NYC,” said Farzan Beroz GS, a graduate student in the biophysics department at the University. Beroz added that he felt like the CPBF was trying to encourage as much cross-talk between scientists as possible. 

Shaevitz explained that part of the CPBF grant would also be used to fund research fellows doing biophysics work who were not in specific labs. Applications for next year’s fellows are open until next month, but Shaevitz said that the first batch of awardees would likely be drawn from existing fellows at Princeton. 

The CPBF grant will additionally be used to establish a summer undergraduate research program to introduce biophysics research to young scientists, said Shaevitz. 

“I haven’t heard anything about a summer research funding program,” said Debopriyo Biswas ’19, a junior doing the certificate program in biophysics. Biswas added that he hoped this new grant would establish research funding for undergraduates in the biophysics program since similar departments, like quantitative and computational biology, provide funding for summer research.

Shaevitz countered that the opportunity, like many NSF-funded research experience for undergraduate programs, would likely attract students from outside Princeton who might not have been exposed to such research before. 

The CPBF also plans to invite speakers from across the field to Manhattan to discuss their work with the broader population, said Shaevitz.

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